All Saints’ Day 2016

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I have preached this sermon in one version or another,
in every parish I have ever served.
You will understand why as it unfolds.

 I love All Saints’ Day!
I might even like it better than Christmas or Easter
because it is less adulterated with cultural spew.

Maybe I like it so much because it is bittersweet in the way that grief is,
when it mellows and has been with us a long time.

All Saints’ does not simply celebrate the past
or raise up big named heroes
or in any way invite nostalgia.
Rather, All Saints’ invites us to dig down
and mine our memories –
both our individual and collective memories –
for people who can teach and guide us
through the murky present into a clearer future.

But we not only seek the counsel of our saints
we need to also celebrate their gifts,
and that is what All Saints’ Day is truly about:

I invite you to play a game of “pretend” with me.

Now some people hate this kind of thing
and if you do, I apologize and ask your patience
as other people play along with me.

I invite you to close your eyes –
if that helps you to imagine.
And we might as well relax a little too.
So take a nice slow, deep breath –

Inhaling through your nose,
and exhaling through your mouth.
Let’s just do that a couple times
and clear our minds for a moment.

Now, imagine if you would…your kitchen.
Just bring to mind the kitchen in your home –
its colors,
the textures,
the furniture and aromas.

Now…with your imagination,
invite important people from the past into your kitchen –
invite people you actually knew,
those who have died;
and invite other people you did not know –
people from history you admire,
or wish you had known.

Invite those folks into your kitchen.
However many chairs are around your kitchen table,
that is how many to invite.

And feel free to try them out and substitute freely
rather than be stuck with the first ones to appear.
Good group chemistry is important.
Karl Marx might not get along with Ronald Reagan,
and your great-grandmother may not be on
speaking terms with Jesus at the moment.
So gather a group that can work with each other
as well as being wonderful and great individuals
you happen to admire.

I am going to stop talking now
and give us just a moment
to conjure up the saints at our kitchen table.

Well, I don’t know if that worked for you or not
but it is the kind of thing you can play with.

Who do you invite?
Why them?
What values does their presence
indicate you cherish most?
Why those people instead of all the folks
you could choose from?

What do they have that is attractive to you:
or did they just love you really well?

Chances are that the people we invite to the table
say more about us and what we value
than it says about them.

Our saints reveal what we cherish and value,
aspire to, and reach toward.

I have a saint that hangs out in the corner
of my mind – not front and center.
Other saints come and go
depending upon my mood,
in the same way that all memory
is subject to the character and substance
of the moment in which it is remembered.

But this particular saint is always at the table
hanging out in the basement of my memory –
sometimes a treasured guest,
sometimes a forgotten one,
sometimes a ghost who haunts me.

At the seminary I attended,
The Episcopal Divinity School
in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
there was a life-size oxidized bronze statue
outside the chapel.
It was a dark tortured figure
kneeling in anguish,
his face raised toward the heavens,
and hands covering the eyes and face
as if holding back an ocean of grief.

It was dedicated to Jonathan Daniels,
an EDS seminarian
killed in Hayneville, Alabama.

This is how it happened.

In 1965 Jonathan Daniels,
along with Ruby Sales,
a 16-year-old African-American girl,
Judy Upham and Joyce Bailey, also Episcopal seminarians,
and a Roman Catholic priest named, Richard Morrisroe, were arrested and beaten.

I mention them all by name,
even though they are not famous
and you may never hear of them again,
but they deserve to be remembered
and honored.
That is the way with saints –
most of them are historically anonymous.

And also, a side note of personal serendipity.
I came to know Richard Morrisroe’s son
when we both lived in Buffalo
and were active in the community.
Meeting and getting to know Richard Morrisroe, Jr.
was like a hand from the past on my shoulder
assuring me that Jonathan Daniels, who I never knew,
was indeed a presence to be both
welcomed and reckoned with.

Anyway, those earnest young Christians I mentioned
committed what the society considered to be
a subversive activity:
they registered African-Americans to vote.

It serves as a great reminder to us
that what is considered subversive in the moment
often looks like exactly the right thing to have done
when it is remembered a generation or more later.

Anyway, they spent six days in the Fort Deposit, Alabama
jail for the crime of registering African-Americans to vote,
and on Friday, Aug. 20, 1965, they were released.
This is a quote by Ruby Sales, a first hand account of the incident as it appeared in the Washington Post (1990):

“We left the jail in a group, and we walked up to the corner. It was one of those hot steamy days. We’d been in jail, underfed, and we were thirsty. As we were walking to the store to get a soda, suddenly there was an ominous sense that filled the air and I became very nervous…the street was clean of cars. There was literally no one around. It was as if the town was suddenly shut down. We started up the stairs.

I was in front, Jon was behind, and Joyce Bailey and Father Morrisroe were walking side by side up the steps. When I got to the last step, Tom Coleman (the sheriff) was standing there brandishing a shotgun. He said, “(Expletive), I’ll blow your brains out.” And then I felt a tug and I fell back. A shotgun blast, a thud. A few seconds later, another shot. And then I heard Richard on the ground crying for water.”(Washington Post 1990).

Now According to Ruby,
Jonathan Daniels
pulled her out of the line of fire
and was shot in the chest with a 12-gauge shotgun.
The force of the blast sent his body flying backwards
and he was killed instantly.
Richard Morrisroe was wounded but recovered.

Jonathan Daniels died at age 26 that August day in 1965,
which was his mother’s birthday.

Jonathan wrote this shortly before his death,
a description of how the Communion of Saints,
at his “kitchen table” of saints,
was empowering him through the dangers of 1965,
and allowing him and his colleagues
to practice their courageous form of spirituality.

“I lost fear…” he wrote, “when I began to know in my bones and sinews
that I had been truly baptized into (Jesus’)
death and Resurrection,
that in the only sense that really matters
I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God.

I began to lose self-righteousness
when I discovered the extent to which my behavior
was motivated by worldly desires
and by self-seeking…
The point is simply, of course,
that one’s motives are usually mixed,
and one had better know it.

As Judy and I said (prayers together) day by day,
we became more and more aware of the living reality
of the invisible “communion of saints” –
of the beloved community in Cambridge
(meaning Episcopal Divinity School)
who were (sharing our prayers) too,
(and) of the ones gathered around
a near-distant throne in heaven –
(those) who blend with their (prayers)
our faltering songs of prayer and praise.

With them,
with black (folks) and white (folks),
with all of life,
in Him Whose Name is above all the names
that the races and nations shout,
whose Name is Itself the Song Which fulfills
and “ends” all songs,
we are indelibly, unspeakably

To me,
it is both comforting and haunting
to read these words Jonathan Daniels wrote
about the table of saints in his own life,
so soon before he gave it up to save another.
In my loneliest moments in seminary,
late into the night,
I used to go sit under that memorial to Jonathan Daniels.
He is the saint at my kitchen table
who reminds me to be brave
when I don’t want to be.
He reminds me that I am never alone
when I am feeling all alone.
He points my attention out the window
when I get absorbed
by the minutia and the business of doing church.

That is what saints do for us,
and so I mention Jonathan
as an example of a kitchen table saint.
I know there are such saints in your life too;
ones who perhaps cradled you
and ones who, like Jonathan,
whisper to you from a greater distance.

We have no shortage of saints
but you and I have to empower them
so they can perform their function.

But here is what we also need to remember,
as scary and intimidating as it is:
you and I are potential saints for other people.

It would be utter narcissism for us to only look
beyond to other saints for ourselves,
and not give considerable thought
to how we might encourage and strengthen,
heal and challenge,
those around us.

You and I may never know
that we are sitting at the imaginary kitchen table
of those with whom we lived and worked and played;
but we should aspire to that position.
I don’t mean in an egotistical, self-righteous way.
I mean that we need to be thoughtful about
how we nurture and care for those around us.

I am not talking about do-gooderism.
I am talking about living as though we never know
who is observing us,
and learning from us,
and even copying us.

I never knew Jonathan Daniels
and he died when I was a child
long before I ever imagined becoming an Episcopal priest.
And I have grave doubts
about whether I would ever be brave enough
to do what he did.

But even so, along with many others people,
I continue to live off the spiritual marrow of his bones.
You and I might be like that for someone we know
or even someone we do not know who is watching us.
We may be like that for someone
who only comes to know about us after we die!

It is an awesome, humbling and sobering thought
that begs for our imagination and contemplation.

So today is for giving thanks for the many
who have gone before us,
known and unknown,
and who bequeathed to us
a treasure-trove of love we call spiritual community.
It is a day to give thanks for saints
at our kitchen table and elsewhere,
and to ponder if we are one too.

For all the saints, we give our thanks.